Nuclear Iran would not spark a Middle East arms race
Fears that Iranian development of a nuclear weapon would spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East are not supported by the historical record or a careful examination of the motivations and strategic interests of potential proliferants (ex. Saudia Arabia, Turkey).
Predictions of catastrophic consequences resulting from a nuclear Iran are not only wrong but counterproductive. The assertion that the widespread proliferation is unavoidable could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The myth of a nuclear domino effect creates an excuse for other Middle Eastern countries -- expecting that their neighbors will be nuclear powers -- to acquire nuclear weapons themselves. Nightmare scenarios are dangerous for yet another reason: the expected consequences of a nuclear Iran, real or imagined, will determine the policies pursued to prevent Tehran from developing the bomb. If the consequences are out of sync with reality, the methods applied will be disproportional to the threat. Seven years ago, the United States walked into Iraq based on worst-case-scenario predictions about its nuclear program that were far from beyond a reasonable doubt. Washington cannot afford to wage another war on false pretenses.
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Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom that Iranian nuclearization will inevitably spark region-wide proliferation deserves closer scrutiny. Historically, “reactive proliferation” has been exceedingly rare. And in the current context, neither Egypt nor Turkey is likely to respond to a nuclear-armed Iran by pursuing the bomb. Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government views Iran as a regional rival, but Cairo does not see Iran’s nuclear ambitions as an existential threat. Moreover, Egypt’s aging nuclear infrastructure is in poor shape, and the country’s leaders will be consumed for the foreseeable future with completing a rocky democratic transition and addressing almost insurmountable economic challenges. As a result, the Egyptian government is highly unlikely to divert scarce financial resources, put its peace agreement with Israel at risk and invite the ire of the international community by pursuing nuclear weapons.7
Ankara may have more anxiety regarding Iranian nuclearization, seeing it as a threat to Middle East stability and Turkey’s growing regional influence. Turkey also has considerably more financial resources than Egypt does to devote toward a nuclear program and has ambitious plans to expand its civilian nuclear sector. However, it would likely take many years for Turkey to fully develop the nuclear or technical infrastructure needed to sup- port an advanced nuclear weapons program. And, crucially, Turkey already possesses a credible nuclear deterrent in the form of its longstanding NATO security guarantee. If Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, Ankara is thus likely to aggressively pursue a Middle East nuclear-free zone while sitting comfortably under the American nuclear umbrella.8
Most important to understanding why the Middle East will not be a zone of unrestrained proliferation is the significant difference between desiring nukes and the actual capacity to acquire them. Of all three states that Shavit mentioned, the one on virtually everyone's list for possible nuclear proliferation in response to Iran is Turkey. But the Turkish Republic is already under a nuclear umbrella: Ankara safeguards roughly 90 of the United States' finest B61 gravity bombs at Incirlik airbase, near the city of Adana. These weapons are there because Turkey is a NATO member, and Washington's extended deterrence can be expected to at least partially mitigate Turkey's incentives for proliferation.
But even if the Turks wanted their own bomb, they have almost no capacity to develop nuclear weapons technology. Indeed, Turkey does not even possess the capability to deliver the 40 B61 bombs at Incirlik that are allocated to Turkish forces in the event of an attack, according to a report released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Given the changes in Turkey's foreign policy and its drive for global influence, it is conceivable that it will want to develop a Turkish version of France's force de frappe. However, Ankara would literally be starting from scratch: Turkey has no fissile material, cannot mine or enrich uranium, and does not possess the technology to reprocess spent fuel, all of which are required for nuclear weapons development.
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Cost considerations aside, it would take years for nuclear aspirants to develop indigenous nuclear capabilities. They would need to build nuclear reactors, acquire nuclear fuel, master enrichment or reprocessing technologies, and build weapons and the means to deliver them. While they tried, the United States and other states would have ample opportunity to increase the costs of prolifer- ation. Indeed, the economic and security interests of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, unlike those of Iran, are tied to the United States and the broader global economy, and developing nuclear weapons would put those interests at risk. Egypt would jeopardize the $1.5 billion in economic and military aid that it receives from Washington each year; Saudi Arabia, its implicit U.S. security guarantee; and Turkey, its place in nato. Given their extensive investments in and business ties to the United States and Europe, all three countries would be far more vulnerable than Iran is to any economic sanctions that U.S. law imposed, or could impose, on nuclear proliferators.
The concern about Saudi proliferation stems from fears that the kingdom would be forced to act if both Iran and Israel possessed a nuclear arsenal. "We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don't," an unnamed Saudi official declared to the Guardian on the sidelines of a meeting between Prince Turki al Faisal and NATO officials in June 2011. "It's as simple as that. If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit." Yet given the fact that the Saudis have very little nuclear infrastructure to speak of, this kind of statement is little more than posturing designed to force the U.S. hand on Iran. Unlike similar warnings by Israel, which has the capacity to follow through on its threat to attack Iran's nuclear sites, Riyadh's rhetoric about acquiring nuclear weapons is empty. What is amazing is how many people take the Saudis seriously. If Khilewi had been telling the truth, now would seem like a good time for the Riyadh to give Tehran a look at what the royal family has been hiding in the palace basement all these years -- but so far, we have only heard crickets.
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Numerous commentators and officials have warned that if Iran defies the international community and develops nuclear weapons, it could fatally undermine the NPT. First, as the National Intelligence Council noted in December of 2012, Iranian nuclear acquisition “could trigger an arms race in the Middle East, undermining the nonpro- liferation regime.”79 Many fear that Saudi Arabia, which views Iran as its principal threat and rival for regional influence, would quickly follow Iran into the nuclear club (perhaps by acquiring nuclear weapons from Pakistan) and that Turkey, Egypt and possibly other Middle Eastern states would not be far behind.80
Second, the failure to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons could undermine international respect for the NPT and gut the credibility of U.S. counterproliferation efforts. The United Nations (U.N.) Security Council has passed six resolu- tions since 2006 demanding that Iran comply with its NPT obligations. Three successive American administrations have also described Iranian nuclear weapons acquisition as “unacceptable,” pledging to do whatever it takes to stop Iran before it gets the bomb. If Iran nevertheless succeeds in developing nuclear weapons, other states may conclude that the NPT is toothless and that Washington, in particular, lacks the capability and the will to enforce member states’ nonproliferation obligations.81
Finally, a nuclear-armed Tehran could itself become a supplier of proliferation materials. Even if Iran does not give operational nuclear weapons to allied states or non-state actors, it might consider providing others with sensitive nuclear assistance, such as centrifuge components or warhead designs. In this way, Tehran could pass sensitive technology to Hezbollah or help jumpstart nuclear programs in allied countries such as Sudan or Venezuela, much as Pakistan’s AQ Khan network allegedly facilitated proliferation efforts in Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea.82
What about Saudi Arabia, then, the Sunni power that is on the tip of most analysts' tongues when it comes to Shiite Iran getting the bomb? Saudi Arabia has the cash to make large-scale investments in nuclear technology. Indeed, the only factor that makes warnings about Saudi proliferation -- such as that delivered by former Ambassador the United States Prince Turki al-Faisal last year -- even remotely credible is the resources the Saudis can muster to buy a nuclear program. Yet, while Riyadh can outfit itself with nuclear facilities with ease, it does not have the capacity to manage them. Mohamed Khilewi, a former Saudi diplomat, claims that the kingdom has been developing a nuclear arsenal to counter Israel since the mid-1970s -- but he offers no substantiated evidence to support these claims.
In fact, the country has no nuclear facilities and no scientific infrastructure to support them. It's possible that Saudi Arabia could import Pakistanis to do the work for them. But while Saudis feel comfortable with Pakistanis piloting some of their warplanes and joining their ground forces, setting up a nuclear program subcontracted with Pakistani know-how -- or even acquiring a nuclear device directly from Islamabad -- poses a range of political risks for the House of Saud. No doubt there would be considerable international opprobrium. Certainly Washington, which implicitly extends its nuclear umbrella to Saudi Arabia, would have a jaundiced view of a nuclear deal between Riyadh and Islamabad. Moreover, it's one thing to hand the keys to an F-15 over to a foreigner, but letting them run your nuclear program is another matter altogether.
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No such precedent exists. In 70 years of nuclear history, there is not a single case of proliferation of nuclear weapons caused by a safeguarded enrichment program which is what Iran will have after an agreement. There have been 10 nuclear weapons states.24 Some weapons programs began in response to another country’s nuclear weapons program, others to actual nuclear tests, but none to a safeguarded enrichment program. Governments tend to be reactive by nature, not proactive—and nuclear weapons are not a small undertaking. Non-nuclear weapons states that have safeguarded enrichment programs, such as Japan and Brazil, have not caused neighboring countries to initiate nuclear weapons programs.
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This suggests that, here too, responses to the challenge posed by a nuclear-capable Iran should be considered in measured rather than apocalyptic terms. While a nuclear- capable Iran would undoubtedly cause significant regional disquiet, the idea that an inevitable proliferation cascade would result is not certain. Moreover, the metaphor of a cascade presumes a rapid reaction. In reality, any response would take a long time to play out (probably decades), and there would be ample time to change course. While there may be rhetorical flourishes toward the need for weapons on the part of states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others, the need to contain a rapid proliferation cascade across the Middle East should, at least for some years, be a less than immediate issue in US and Israeli thinking about how to respond to a nuclear Iran.67
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Another question that will confront those trying to deter a future nuclear-capable Iran will be the consequences of Iran’s status on regional proliferation. As noted previously, there is a significant line of thinking that Iran’s actions will result in a proliferation ‘‘cascade’’ across the Middle East.62 A senior member of the Saudi Royal Family has stated that the Kingdom will be forced to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does.63 How real is this fear? This is a serious question. If US deterrence policy toward Iran is conditioned to some extent by the objective of demonstrating that other regional states do not need to ‘‘go nuclear’’ to deal with Iran, then this will have real consequences for US diplomacy and for its military posture in the Middle East and for the policies of several regional countries.64 Recent scholarship on proliferation is increasingly making the point that assumptions about reactive proliferation cascades are overplayed. Ever since President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assertion that 'within a decade' there would be fifteen, twenty, or even twenty-five nuclear weapons states, proliferation fears have constantly overestimated the danger of such cascades.65 In fact, the reality is that proliferation is not the norm but the exception in terms of international behavior. Even when confronted with serious challenges, including nuclear-armed regional rivals, most states find other ways to assure their security.66
The author dismisses the argument that a nuclear Iran would lead to a proliferation cascade in the Middle East, arguing that "[t]his argument overlooks the international and domestic factors that point to the fact that the nuclear domino rarely falls."
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The author dismisses recent threats from Gulf states that they would pursue nuclear weapons if the Iran deal passes, arguing that "one thing we do not need to worry about is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. There is scant evidence that proliferation begets proliferation."
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The authors review the rationales and disincentives for each state that might pursue a nuclear weapon if Iran develops one, and conclude that "a close analysis of probable scenarios suggests that a final Iranian nuclear agreement is unlikely to trigger a regional nuclear weapons cascade."
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The authors challenge the conventional wisdom that an Iranian nuclear capability would compel Turkey to follow suit.
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